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Falkland Islands: Landmines

Volume 799: debated on Tuesday 8 October 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether landmines laid in the Falkland Islands by the Argentinean forces in 1982 have been removed.

My Lords, under the anti-personnel mine ban convention, the UK is obliged to clear the Falkland Islands as its only mined territory. After the conflict in 1982, the UK cleared all known British-laid mines. The remaining mines, spread across 122 minefields, were laid by Argentina. Since 2009, the demining programme has released over 21 million square metres of land and destroyed over 9,700 anti-personnel mines. The current phase of the programme will complete the mine clearance.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that reply. Is it not the case that there was a new international convention on these matters quite recently—certainly since 1982—which was much encouraged by the support of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, and more recently by His Royal Highness the Duke of Sussex?

Absolutely, and I am sure I speak for everyone in your Lordships’ House in paying tribute to the late Princess Diana for her incredible leadership on this, drawing attention to the issue of minefields around the world. Of course, we also pay tribute to His Royal Highness the Duke of Sussex on his recent trip to Angola to further highlight and continue the good work of his mother.

My Lords, how helpful have the Argentinians been in the clearing process? Shifting sands were always the difficulty, requiring maps and Argentinian personnel to help identify where the minefields were in the first place to allow a proper clearance programme.

A joint report was done back in 2007, to which the Argentinians contributed, but we are mindful that the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands is that of the United Kingdom. We have taken the lead and sole responsibility for all continued mine clearance.

My Lords, I understand from information I got from people doing mine clearance some years ago that the difficulty in the Falklands is the nature of the terrain, or the earth. Some of the unexploded ordnance has sunk so deep into the earth that it is very difficult to clear, which is one reason we have not been able to achieve 100% clearance. I want to use my question to widen the discussion a little. There are so many areas in the world where unexploded ordnance is causing serious risk to ordinary people long after the conflict has ceased. Can the Minister say a little about what we are doing to support MAG and other organisations that are doing this valuable work internationally?

First, on the earlier point raised by the noble Lord, and made earlier, I agree with him: the terrain has proved challenging. However, we are confident that, with the Ottawa convention and the timeline set for 2024, we will complete all the demining in the Falkland Islands. On the broader issue, we are very much committed. His Royal Highness’s recent visit reflects our continued commitment and we have allocated a further £100 million to this primary objective of clearing mines around the world.

I think the Minister was referring to the 1997 Ottawa landmine treaty, which aims to free the world of landmines by 2025. The Minister just mentioned Angola; it is likely to be 2045 before it is clear of landmines. At the end of its civil war in 2002, there were as many landmines in Angola as people. What are we doing internationally to build on what Prince Harry has done in southern Africa—particularly in Zimbabwe and Angola—in that regard? Also, are we ensuring that we are doing all we can to discourage the use of landmines in the conflict in Syria right now, which will cause problems for many years to come?

The noble Baroness is quite right. That is why I mentioned the Ottawa convention. We are abiding by the extension granted by the convention as part of fulfilling our mandate in the Falkland Islands. As for Angola and, indeed, other places, as I have indicated, we are absolutely committed. In 2017, the UK tripled its funding for mine action around the world. As I said in response to the previous question, we have now committed £100 million over three years to tackle the humanitarian and development impact of landmines. This is a scourge that impacts on every conflict zone. I have seen it directly through various visits. The noble Baroness mentioned Syria; of course, that remains a primary concern but we need stability and security in Syria before we can embark on any demining that may be required in that part of the world.

I was responsible for clearing landmines in the Falkland Islands and I subsequently became chair of the Halo Trust. The reason we stopped clearing landmines in the Falklands is that certainly more than two people—I am not sure exactly how many—lost limbs clearing Argentinian landmines that were not mapped. There is new technology, but can it clear all these mines without danger to British personnel?

I pay tribute to my noble friend and all those involved in this important work. Demining areas that were previously conflict zones is a key priority and we pay tribute to those who put themselves at risk for this purpose. My noble friend raises an important point about using technology. I assure him that we deploy the best technology available in the work we do internationally. I understand that, subsequent to what happened in previous years, clearing landmines in the Falkland Islands has not resulted in any significant injury to any person.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that these mines were laid in a vain attempt by the Argentinians to prevent the recapture of the islands. The recapture involved a task force of over 60 warships and 73 merchant ships. Twelve of those frigates and destroyers were either sunk or very badly damaged. Today, we have 19 frigates and destroyers. Does the Minister not agree that it is all very well ordering frigates to replace frigates one for one, but we need to increase the number of ships in our Navy to make the seas of the world safer and look after our interests worldwide?

I am sure many are full of admiration for the noble Lord and the work he did in Her Majesty’s Navy. I agree with him on the important role that the Navy played during the Falklands crisis. I am sure my colleagues at the Ministry of Defence have noted carefully his suggestion about our current capacity. It is important that we look towards all our military across the piece, whether it is our Air Force, our Army or our Navy, to ensure they are fit for purpose for 2019 and beyond.

Does my noble friend agree that there is a great danger of conflating this issue with the very valuable work done by Diana, Princess of Wales, who was mindful that the landmines she was trying to clear were in areas of high population? This does not apply to the Falklands, where all the anti-personnel mines are fenced off. There is a minimal population there and people avoid going near the area where the mines are.

My noble friend is correct that in the Falkland Islands the areas containing mines are clearly and carefully designated, but important work continues to ensure that we can rid the islands of mines altogether. I emphasise the point that the work done by Princess Diana, currently being led by His Royal Highness, provides focus on this important issue, to make it a priority for all countries that can assist in this area.